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Using Problem Based Learning (PBL) to Teach Economics

Note: Since writing this case study, Frank Forsythe has authored the PBL Guide in our Handbook for Economics Lecturers.


This case study provides a few general observations based on my experiences using PBL to teach economics at Ulster. The two references below provide more specific details on the PBL environments adopted.

Although PBL encourages a learning environment in which students are actively involved in the generation of information, there is no suggestion here that these very desirable attributes are attainable only through PBL.

The basic PBL format can be adapted to suit the learning environment. Thus, at one end of the PBL spectrum, PBL at Ulster has been used to support formal lectures in an introductory economics module by requiring students to apply key concepts first introduced during lectures to real world situations.(Note1) At the other extreme, PBL has been used exclusively as the sole teaching method in a final year labour economics module where it replaced the traditional lecture-seminar format.(Note2) I have introduced a variety of undergraduate types to PBL - economics specialist / non-specialists; full-time / part-time; first year / final year. To help review and monitor the use of PBL every student is given an opportunity to provide detailed comments relating to their PBL experience.

PBL Experiences - Teacher Perspective

At Ulster 25% of total designated module hours are 'contact' hours during which students meet teachers. Under the more traditional lecture-seminar format, students who are unable to manage the remaining 75% non-contact time, perhaps due to weak independent learning skills, may waste excessive non-contact time before the teacher becomes aware that a student is having difficulty with the module. A key advantage of PBL is that it can help students manage 'non-contact' hours more effectively, since it is during these hours that PBL students are required to generate information for the group within a given time-scale (one week at Ulster). The PBL tasks set by the teacher determine the learning activities undertaken by students during non-contact hours. This helps to reduce wastage of non-contact hours.

Another key advantage of PBL is that students are required to communicate and discuss the subject with other students on a regular basis. This feature of PBL, which requires students to 'talk economics' throughout the teaching term, is particularly attractive when one is faced with a student culture that tends to adopt a passive, non-communicative, stance under more traditional seminar formats. Such students prefer the teacher to do all the talking and invariably, after an initial struggle, this tends to be the outcome.

Finally (and according to students themselves) there are externalities associated with PBL. The independent learning, research and time-management skills that are developed within a PBL based module help students study more effectively in other, non-PBL modules. This suggests that the sooner students experience PBL methods within the curriculum, the greater will be the potential 'externality' effect elsewhere. It is my experience that some PBL within the curriculum is better than none.

PBL Experiences - Student Perspective

The PBL methods used at Ulster require students to work within strict time constraints throughout the 12-week teaching term. There is also the additional responsibility of having to contribute to team effort. At Ulster the teams must produce a written response to each set task. These written responses form the basis for feedback discussions between teacher and students. According to students, PBL imposes a harder work regime than non-PBL environments. Coursework assessment, after some trial and error, is now designed to severely penalise students who fail to contribute to team effort and generously reward working members of the group. Students emphasise the benefits that result from a sharing of the workload and the exchange of ideas that are typical features of PBL. Despite the constant pressure of work, a significant majority of students indicated that their PBL experience was positive rather than negative. Students who disliked PBL cited two reasons - the high workload and a preference for lectures in which the teacher is a primary source of information.


In this brief summary it has not been possible to provide a full assessment of PBL, not least the potential pitfalls and risks associated with PBL methods, particularly when first introduced within a non-PBL teaching environment. I continue to use PBL for one reason: as a teacher it is a privilege to witness a dynamic group of students working on their own initiative, fired with enthusiasm, striving to solve some economics-related problem. Not all PBL groups attain this degree of cohesion, but when it occurs, one knows that this is what teaching is about.


Note 1: An example is provided in Forsythe, F, 'Motivating students in economics: the role of problem based learning', in Hockings, C & Moore, I (eds), Innovations in Teaching Business and Management, SEDA Paper 111, May 2001, Case Study No. 11, pp 111-117.

Note 2: See Forsythe, F, 'The role of problem based learning and technology support in a 'spoon-fed' undergraduate environment', in Gijselaers, J & Johannessen, T (eds), Educational Innovation in Economics and Business, Vol VI, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Amsterdam [forthcoming, December 2001].

See also: the Case Study: Problem Based Learning (PBL)

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